1998 Georgia General Election Preview

The upcoming November elections promise to be among the most interesting and hard fought in Georgia history according to the published polls and the level of political advertising. Never have the Republicans had greater opportunities to finally gain the levers of power in Georgia, and the Democrats are fighting tooth and nail to hold onto their control of the Gold Dome. Here is a preview of several of the most important elections facing Georgia voters this year.

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Senator Paul Coverdell, a first term Republican incumbent, faces Democratic businessman Michael Coles in November. This was widely expected to be a tight race for Coverdell due to his freshman status and fairly reserved approach to politics. Yet, Coverdell has clearly taken command of this race with only three weeks until election day. The latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll has Coverdell in front of Coles by 55%-33%, despite Coles' very aggresive negative ad campaign directed at Coverdell.

Democrats insist that Coles still has a chance to defeat Coverdell, but recent articles in several political journals have dropped Georgia from the list of states where Democrats have a shot at defeating an incumbent Republican U.S. senator. This should be a fairly easy win for Coverdell.


Unlike the U.S. Senate race, the gubernatorial election is proving to be the pitched battle that was predicted at the beginning of 1998. The latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll finds Republican businessman Guy Millner in front of Democratic State Representative Roy Barnes by a margin of 47%-41%. A Mason-Dixon opinion survey found the candidates tied in support levels, though Millner's campaign criticized the survey's methodology. The candidates have pounded each other with negative ads for the past two months, and Barnes has recently enjoyed the endorsement of popular incumbent Democratic governor Zell Miller in the latest positive ads.

Guy Millner was the 1994 GOP candidate for governor and 1996 GOP candidate for U.S. Senate and still enjoys widespread name recognition from those two close but unsuccessful efforts. All signs point to a tight election on November 3rd with turnout being the key factor.


Democratic State Senator Mark Taylor of Albany and Republican Mitch Skandalakis, the present chairman of the Fulton County Commission, are in a dogfight for Georgia's second highest electoral post. The most recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll finds them tied at 39% apiece, with Skandalakis running strongly in his metro Atlanta base and Taylor running well in rural Georgia.

Taylor recently received a boost when he was endorsed by the Georgia Equality Project (GEP), the state's largest non-partisan gay and lesbian political organization. GEP noted how Skandalakis had courted gay voters in past campaigns, and how he had distanced himself from the gay community this year for reasons of political expediency. Yet, this election's main focus is on educational issues, primarily the use of funds from Georgia's lottery to finance HOPE scholarships for college students. Skandalakis has considered some changes in the lottery allocation formula. With both candidates struggling to raise money and get their message across in the final days of the campaign, this race is expected to be very close on election night.


Republican State Senator David Ralston of Blue Ridge faces appointed Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker in November in a race that should be very close and exciting. Ralston's campaign recently released an internal poll showing Ralston leading Baker by a margin of 42% to 30%. Partly, this reflects name identification as Ralston had a tough primary and runoff, requiring extensive TV advertising, to win the GOP nomination. Baker was unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

Neither candidate has begun advertising on television yet, preserving their resources for the final weeks of the campaign. At this point Ralston has the edge, but Baker can be expected to spend heavily on television. As the state's first African-American constitutional officeholder, Baker will also benefit from a high level of black participation and support in the election.


Assistant Secretary of State Cathy Cox, a Democrat, will face Republican John McCallum in a contest that has seen little action so far during the fall. McCallum, the husband of the former Miss America, Heather Whitestone, is employing religious right political consultant Ralph Reed for this campaign. Yet, Cox has to be rated as the favorite due to her fund-raising ability, her experience within the secretary of state's office, and McCallum's age (28) and status as a first time political candidate. The two candidates are expected to begin their media campaigns shortly. Thus far, there have been no published polls released on this race.


Republicans appear to have made a major blunder during the primary, picking perennial candidate John Frank Collins over two much more viable candidates. Collins has run unsuccessfully numerous times for several different offices, both as a Republican and as a Democrat. He faces a tough opponent in Democrat Michael Thurmond, Director of Human Resources under incumbent Governor Zell Miller. Thurmond has led Miller's welfare reform efforts and garnered favorable publicity in the process. He can be expected to win strong support among his fellow African-American voters. This should be an easy win for Michael Thurmond.


Incumbent Republican John Oxendine is cruising to an easy victory over Democratic State Representative Henrietta Canty. Oxendine is very well- funded, having courted the insurance industry eagerly after his 1994 upset victory over the controversial Democratic insurance commissioner, Tim Ryles. Oxendine has not been without controversy, having been attacked by the press for alleged conflicts of interest in his office.

Of note to gay voters, John Oxendine has refused to allow insurance companies doing business in Georgia to offer insurance benefits to gay couples at reduced rates. However, a well stocked campaign account, an aggresive TV campaign, and a weak Democratic opponent spell four more years for John Oxendine in the insurance commissioner post.


Republican incumbent Bobby Baker faces only token Democratic opposition in his quest for another six year term on the Public Service Commission. While serving as Commission chairman, Baker led the fight to open Georgia to full competition amongst utility companies, including telephone, electricity, and natural gas providers. His first term on the Public Service Commission has been productive and largely uncontroversial.

There have been no polls published on this race, but Baker is well-funded and should begin advertising heavily in the coming weeks. Bobby Baker is expected to win a large victory in November.


Superintendant Linda Schrenko, the GOP incumbent, faces a stiff challenge from Democrat Joe Martin, the former president of the Atlanta City School Board. Schrenko's first term as superintendent has been marked by several verbal gaffes, including an attack on the state PTA. Yet, SAT scores have risen during her tenure and she has assiduously courted the support of moderate pro- business Republicans, such as State Board of Education Chairman Johnny Isakson.

Schrenko has drawn her dream opponent in Joe Martin, who will be forced to defend the appalling record of Atlanta city schools during his tenure as school board president. There have been no public polls or TV advertising in this race as yet, but the mud should start to fly fairly soon. Look for a tight race on election day, with Schrenko having the support of business and the Christian right and Martin enjoying the support of the teachers' unions and other education professionals.


All 180 seats in the Georgia House of Representatives and all 56 seats in the Georgia Senate are up for election in November. Presently, Democrats hold a 101-79 majority in the House and a 33-23 majority in the Senate. According to several newspaper and magazine stories, Republicans are expected to add several seats in both chambers, with several Republicans claiming that they will obtain majorities in either or both chambers.

At this point, Republicans appear to have a realistic outside chance of gaining control of the Georgia House, where retirements of several senior Democrats provide plenty of opportunities for GOP candidates. The Senate looks less promising for the Republicans, with a one to three seat gain for the GOP predicted by most political observers. To their credit, Republicans are running the most qualified, trained, and well financed crop of candidates in the party's history. This should provide substantial dividends on election day, but whether it will be enough to garner a majority in either chamber is still an open question.